Leadership styles will always be influenced by the personalities of individual leaders. There’s no way to “clone” leadership from one human to another, and thank goodness for that!
Even if we could clone outstanding leaders, it wouldn’t be smart, because leaders must be a good fit for the groups they lead – groups that are increasingly diverse.
Leadership style is important, but it’s one of many characteristics that help determine which leader is the best fit for which organization.
If you’ve been in the workforce long enough to have had multiple jobs and roles, then you’ve almost certainly encountered leaders of various types, including:
The autocrat – whose word is final and who does little if any consulting with others before making decisions
The democratic leader – who makes decisions after including team members and other trusted people in the evaluation process
The laissez-faire leader – who gives team members significant scope (sometimes too much scope) in how they do their work
The true transformational leader strives to combine the best characteristics of other leadership types. They tend to demonstrate great creativity, compassion, and a clear vision of where the organization is headed. It’s a type of leadership that makes sense for today’s business world.
The Key Characteristic That Sets Transformational Leaders Apart
Transformational leaders place great emphasis on listening. The best ones do their utmost to listen to multiple viewpoints and not just those that confirm what they were already thinking. It takes confidence and inner security to do this because true listening can ultimately result in the admission of being wrong, and many old-style leaders had a hard time with that concept.
Transformational leaders know how important listening is because they know how much followers have changed over the decades. Today’s team members are informed, curious, and diverse, and they have their own goals. Some of them are also future leaders. Listening is a way that transformational leaders ensure they are as fully informed as possible when they make key decisions.
Why Other Leadership Styles Were More Relevant in Different Eras
The autocratic leader made more sense in an era when change was slow and stability was expected. And there are times in today’s business world when the ability to make a decision on behalf of a group, with confidence and ownership, is the right thing to do.
Sure, there are times when swift, sure, final decisions must be made, but autocratic leadership can be problematic in an era of rapid change.
Likewise, the more democratic leader, who was willing to accept team consensus on some decisions made sense in times when risks were lower in business. Laissez-faire leaders may still be effective in organizations where autonomy is necessary to keep moving forward, as it is in many creative industries.
But it is the transformational leader that is best suited for a business world that moves quickly, where risks can be high, and where organizations are held accountable for the actions of individuals in them.
Leadership Coaching and Transformational Leadership
Leadership coaching doesn’t try to impose a leadership style on a client. But leadership coaches often work on skills that are essential for transformational leadership. For example, many clients work with coaches specifically on developing their listening skills, because they have been in situations where inadequate listening skills have caused problems.
Leadership coaching is also used by leaders who consider themselves to be transformational leaders because they know they have skills gaps that need to be filled. For example, a leader may be a fantastic listener but may have trouble taking the steps from listening and gathering evidence to making a decision and sticking to it.
Transformational leaders are often described as energetic, passionate, trustworthy, intelligent, and creative, and they tend to inspire these qualities in others. While there may be times when the transformational leader must act authoritatively, or step back and allow more autonomy, the difference is that they do so knowing why they’re doing it, and without giving up the great listening and data gathering skills that make them strong leaders.
We live in a world where transformation happens constantly, and leadership styles that don’t accept and work with that fact simply won’t be as effective as they were in earlier eras. If you’re interested in learning more about the transformation that’s ongoing in today’s business culture, and about the role of great leadership, I invite you to check out my books as well as my executive coaching programs.
Do some companies invest in leadership development because it’s what everyone else does? Possibly. But most invest in leadership development such as training and leadership coaching because they want to see actual results.
Companies don’t just hire leadership coaches because it’s “the thing to do,” but because they want to see measurable business results.
The problem is, leadership development initiatives don’t always translate to actual change within the company. One study found that only 15% of leaders undergoing leadership training were able to effect actual change within the company. Another found that while more than two-thirds of organizations considered leadership development critical to their business strategy, only 20% thought their leadership development efforts had measurable business results.
Leadership development isn’t just for leaders, or else it’s likely to simply be a self-indulgent exercise. It must translate to results throughout the company and on the bottom line. Here’s how to ensure leadership development, leadership coaching, and all other investments in leadership actually pay off.
Leadership Development for Leaders Themselves
Companies that don’t offer their leaders growth opportunities risk losing them to other companies, and when this happens regularly, company growth is stunted, and succession options rapidly become depleted. Leaders themselves must understand the value of leadership development, and they must understand what the company expects from them.
Moreover, leaders who understand and appreciate talent development at all corporate levels have distinct advantages over leaders that don’t, because they realize the importance of things like succession planning, leadership coaching, and the bottom-line results that come from well-led teams.
Translating Leadership Development into Stronger Teams
Compare a well-led team to a poorly-led team, and it’s easy to see how crucial good leadership is. Not every organization has the resources to offer leadership coaching at the team leader level. But it’s reasonable to assume that team leaders who are in turn led by properly trained and coached departmental and executive leaders would outperform team leaders without those resources.
And that leads to another characteristic of strong top-level leaders: they are invested in what happens in the departments and teams underneath them on the organizational chart. One of the most important tasks involved in leadership coaching is the alignment of the leader’s goals with the organizational goals.
Ever driven on a car where the wheels weren’t in alignment? The ride was probably uncomfortable, and you probably used more fuel than necessary to get where you were going.
When the leader’s goals are in alignment with the organization’s goals, forward progress is faster and smoother. When a leader’s goals are in a different universe than the organization’s goals, stagnation and even regression of business results can result.
Ensuring Leadership Development Benefits the Entire Workforce
Leadership development isn’t solely about the leaders. In fact, the best kind of leadership development works toward a better organization at all levels. Leadership that feels disconnected from the rank-and-file doesn’t inspire people to go above and beyond. The worst cases can inspire resentment. Proper leadership development should get results that permeate the culture, demonstrating repeatedly that the leaders are doing what they were hired to do, and that the organization is better off because of it.
Despite the many changes in the world of business in recent years, the fundamentals of leadership are the same as they’ve ever been:
Uniting people around common organizational goals
Creating a strategy for achieving those goals by tapping into everyone’s talents
Attracting high-quality employees at all levels
Focusing on results
Practicing self-leadership – continually striving to improve oneself so as to be more effective and lead better
These fundamentals practiced with consistency, integrity, and transparency, show measurable, positive business results.
My leadership coaching career has taught me the importance of the organizational context within which a leader operates. It is clear that the businesses with strong principles, that operate ethically, logically, and with an open mind toward innovation and change are the ones in which leadership development (including leadership coaching) gets the most outstanding results. Is leadership development part of your company’s overarching vision for 2019? If so, I invite you to check out my books, as well as my leadership and executive coaching programs.
Strong corporate culture provides two seemingly competing characteristics: stability and dynamism. The stability is provided by deep principles on which the culture is based. The dynamism is provided by the actions and attitudes that constantly grow and evolve based on those core principles. It is a way of looking at the stars while having feet firmly planted on the ground.
Practicality and creativity can feed each other in the right setting.
Without culture, a business is nothing more than a place people go to work so they can support themselves. Things may get done, but beyond basic business processes, the company is relatively inert, giving up countless opportunities to make lives better, both inside and outside the walls of the business.
Following are five key aspects of a healthy and successful company culture. Work on improving them, and you create a business that’s more than just a place for people to work and earn paychecks.
There’s little mystery why so many leadership coaching clients work on mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment and accepting the current reality. It helps tune out distractions and promotes problem-solving and creativity. Developing mindfulness in the workforce doesn’t require mandatory yoga classes, but it does require instilling a culture of focusing on the moment, and leaders who practice mindfulness and set a great example. It also requires acknowledging times when it’s appropriate to celebrate or to step away from work momentarily to appreciate why we do what we do.
2. Organization-Wide Understanding of the Importance of Culture
If the corporate culture is only talked about in meetings of department heads or is only taken seriously by some of the departments, the benefits won’t be apparent. Every employee, regardless of their position on the organizational chart, must be educated about what the company is about: not just making semiconductors or designing glassware, but also being a force for positive change in the world. Everyone needs to know that their contribution matters, and how their contribution matters.
3. Cutting Back the “Weeds” of Negativity
Just as actual weeds can take over an untended garden in record time, the corporate “weeds” of negativity grow fast and can choke out positive initiatives if left unchecked. This is not to say that everyone must show a forced positivity at all times, but that genuine complaints are considered and listened to, rather than ignored and left to transform into rumors and general negative energy. Negativity must not be ignored, but understood, so it can be addressed and not allowed to strangle positivity.
Attention to culture helps prevent the “weeds” of negativity from taking over.
4. Ensuring Company Values Work with, not Against Each Other
What are your corporate values? If you spelled them all out, do they show a coherent direction, or do some of them seem at cross-purposes with others? If you say you value outstanding productivity and each employee’s growth and well-being, do you allow one of those to “win” over the other? How will you tell when one value needs to take precedence over another, and how will you bring things back into balance when that is no longer the case? Don’t just say you value something: demonstrate that you do.
5. Being Part of a Larger Community
It doesn’t matter if your company is self-contained in one location or distributed among teams around the globe: it is part of a larger community. Maybe your company headquarters takes up an entire city block, but it is also part of the neighborhood and the city. How does it make those places better? Community outreach and social responsibility are important, not only for young professionals looking for the best places to work but for the good of the surrounding community. The “goodwill” benefits of making the community better may not be as easy to measure as numbers on an annual report, but they carry tremendous weight.
If you are focused on the direction of your corporate culture, I invite you to learn more about my corporate culture and transformation advisory services. Both the historic numbers and my own experiences have taught me that the current and future operating success of a business is tied to the health and maturity of its culture, and I can teach you how to develop a transformation plan that will put your company on the path to genuine, long-term success.
When companies invest in executive coaching, they do so in hopes of gaining measurable improvements.
Why do we invest in our children’s education? Because we want the result of prepared, independent people who contribute to society. We invest financially to get the result of greater financial freedom. We invest in improving skills because we want the result of being more competent and effective.
Likewise, companies invest in executive coaches because they want the result of more effective top leadership. But the companies with the deepest pockets know that just because someone calls themselves an executive coach doesn’t mean they have the skills to work with top executives, address their skills gaps, double down on best characteristics, and facilitate better results for the company.
Executive coaching programs aren’t hard to find. But determining which executive coaching programs turn out truly qualified executive coaches can be a bit more of a challenge. Making this extra effort is mandatory, however, for organizations that want to maximize the return on their executive coaching investment.
What Backgrounds Do Top Executive Coaches Typically Have?
Most executive coaches have backgrounds in things other than coaching. Just as many opera coaches are former opera singers, and just as many sports coaches have extensive experience playing the sport they coach, executive coaches often have experience in the highest levels of business leadership.
That is not always the case, however. You’re likely to find some executive coaches who specialize in particular industries, and this can be helpful. For example, hiring an executive coach for the top brass in a healthcare corporation will typically require a different set of expectations than would hiring a coach in an industrial solvents business or a transportation company.
Do you need to choose an executive coach with a background in your particular industry? Not necessarily. However, highly specialized industries with highly specialized customer bases tend to benefit from hiring executive coaches with specific experience in those industries, because they are likelier to understand what these companies need from their top leadership positions.
It doesn’t matter what industry your business is in: you can almost certainly find an executive coach with experience in that industry, and while it isn’t strictly necessary, it can be a good way to narrow the field when choosing an executive coach for your top leadership.
What Training Is Available for Aspiring Executive Coaches?
A simple search engine query on “train to become an executive coach” yields over 99 million results, so there’s no shortage of people or programs out there claiming to serve this need. Since there is no single, official credential that will tell you whether an executive coach is qualified the way, say, an accountant is qualified, you could hire an executive coach with any number (or no number) of training experiences.
The fact is, anyone can claim to be an executive coach whether or not they have been through an executive coaching program, so it’s wise to be skeptical of the credentials of anyone who says they are an executive coach.
The good news is that executive coaching programs are evolving to more directly meet the needs of potential coaching clients, and those who are serious about becoming an executive coach know that if they want to land the best clients, they have to bring something more to the table than a hastily-earned certificate bestowing the title “executive coach” on them.
Today there are even accreditation programs for executive coach training programs that can help potential clients determine whether the coaches they consider hiring have the necessary training and experience to deliver outstanding results. There’s still no equivalent to the Bar Exam for executive coaches, but it’s a bit less of a “Wild West” environment than it used to be with respect to finding qualified coaches.
Components of Great Executive Coaching Programs
Any top executive coaching program will cover the three main pillars of overarching coaching principles, practice guidelines, and core competencies.
The overarching principles learned in executive coaching programs work as a compass to the coach and the client. A systems perspective is one such principle because the goal of coaching a single executive is always pursued as part of a larger goal of organizational success. Other overarching principles include a results-based orientation, because results are, after all, what the organization wants, and a business focus because the coach is not a substitute for a therapist.
Executive coaching is ultimately about business, not about exploring psychological issues.
Practice guidelines taught in executive coaching programs include topics like confidentiality, pre-coaching assessments and activities, the development of coaching contracts, assessments, goal-setting techniques, and follow-up.
Core competencies taught in high-quality executive coaching programs include psychological knowledge, business understanding, organizational understanding, and proven coaching techniques. Coaches should also be specifically trained in how to build and maintain coaching relationships, how to conduct developmental planning with the client organization, and how to facilitate development and change with clients.
Finally, coaches should be trained in how and when to conclude the coaching relationship, and how to help clients make the transition to long-term development. Most executive coaches provide for some follow-up guidance after the official coaching relationship has ended, and this can be tremendously helpful for executives who want to continue developing the skills and techniques that coaching has helped them learn.
Advantages of Executive Coaching Programs That Are Accredited
Accreditation, in general, is a process where an organization obtains certification of competency and credibility. When evaluating accreditation of executive coaching programs, it’s important to learn about not only the coaching program but also about the organization bestowing the accreditation. In the field of executive coaching, it is the International Coach Federation (ICF) that is the most prominent accrediting body.
One of the main purposes of the ICF is to ensure high standards in the coaching profession, because the better the training program is, the better results the coaches trained by it will deliver. The ICF is recognized as an industry leader worldwide, and ICF accreditation generally indicates that an executive coaching program has proven credibility.
The ICF also has an official Code of Conduct for their program accreditation, and it addresses several key issues that companies considering hiring an executive coach should examine closely, including:
Organizational and employee conduct
Distribution of approved courses
Course operational standards
Course content standards
Past unethical behavior
When you’re excited about hiring an executive coach, it can be somewhat of a downer to consider the possibility that a training program isn’t up to scratch, or may have had problems in the past, but it’s part of the due diligence that must be done to ensure that the investment in executive coaching gets the desired results.
Can Coaches Receive Some or All of their Training Online?
Many aspects of executive coach training can be and are carried out online. Not everyone who aspires to become an executive coach has the resources to devote to even a short-term, intensive program on a campus. In fact, even executive coaching programs that conduct most of the training in a classroom generally have some of the activities online, for practical reasons.
Today’s executive coaching programs tend to include both in-person and online components.
One example of an accredited executive coach training program is John Mattone’s Intelligent Leadership Executive Coaching Certification. The program is accredited by the ICF and is designed to ignite (or re-ignite) a participant’s coaching career by training in proven executive coaching philosophies, processes, and tools. Some of the training takes place online.
The program includes an intensive, immersive three-day hands-on learning experience, as well as a comprehensive resource manual, plus a recommended two-year development journey so that skills learned can be consistently applied as an executive coach grows their practice. Further levels of mastery can be pursued with additional in-person and online learning modules.
In short, even the world’s top executive coaching programs are realistic, in that they understand the value of online learning. Accredited online training programs are pursued by aspiring executive coaches who may not have geographic access to in-person programs. The key to succeeding at any high-quality training program is the effort and time the participant is willing to invest in the process.
Hiring an Executive Coach with the Right Qualifications
Since coaching is an unregulated industry, you will have to ask questions and do research to find out what qualifications a potential coach offers. You can be more confident of their qualifications if they show they completed an accredited program, such as one accredited by the ICF. Another way to check out credentials is to do online searches of both the candidate coach and any programs they attended.
While there are many coaches who consider themselves generalists, there are also many who choose to specialize in certain industries. You may or may not choose to hire an executive coach who specializes in your particular industry, but you are wise to discuss your needs as well as your industry when talking to potential coaches. Any top executive coach will have the names and contact information of trusted professional references you can talk to about their expertise and experience.
Experience, training, and passion for coaching should all be evident in any candidate coaches you interview.
Many executive coaches offer complimentary “discovery” sessions that allow both parties to assess how good a “fit” the coaching relationship will be. Ideally, both the person who is to be coached and the person responsible for hiring the coach will be in on this session to go over topics like:
Minimum commitments, including follow-up commitments
Frequency of meetings
ROI for prior client organizations and executives
Success stories – especially if the client can follow up on them
Additionally, this session should give clients an idea of the level of synergy between the coach and client, as well as whether the coach is well-organized, and genuinely committed to what they do.
Questions to Ask Potential Executive Coach Candidates
You will undoubtedly have plenty of your own, specific questions to ask of candidate coaches, but be sure to ask the following as well:
How long have you been coaching?
What clients have you worked with?
What events led you to become an executive coach?
Can you provide me with references?
What steps will you take to understand our unique corporate culture?
How do you tailor plans to meet specific coaching needs and budgets?
What type of coaching methodology do you use?
Can you give me an example of when you empowered a client to leave their comfort zone?
How would you handle telling a client that they are wrong about something?
Do you have experience in our industry?
What training and certifications do you have?
How do you measure the success of the coaching engagement?
How long are typical coaching engagements, and do you offer follow-up afterward?
Even for large, successful businesses, executive coaching can be a sizeable investment. Maximizing the return on that investment requires that you do plenty of research and ask plenty of questions before signing a contract with an executive coach.
Signing a contract with an executive coach should only come after thorough research and vetting.
What if You Want to Become an Executive Coach?
The process of becoming an executive coach may appear simple, but it isn’t easy. The first, and perhaps most important thing you can do is to ask yourself if coaching is the right calling for you. Being a great coach requires genuinely wanting to coach. You might be surprised at the number of people who entertain the idea of being an executive coach without being convinced deep down that coaching is a good fit for their experience, goals, and personality.
Assuming that coaching is a genuine goal, and something you’re willing to learn, practice, and persevere with, the next step is choosing an accredited executive coaching program. There are many of them, so you’ll need to research several. Consider how the training is delivered (online, in person, or a combination of both), how much it costs, how long it lasts, and what credentials you will receive upon successfully completing training.
Once you finish your executive coaching program, you will need to build coaching experience hours. Many coaching programs help program participants to do this as part of the training program, but not all do. Working with a mentor coach can be tremendously helpful in learning the daily ins and outs of the coaching business, and in networking and finding opportunities to coach. With many executive coaching programs, the hours you spend coaching in the field can count toward additional coaching credentials.
Getting your first coaching client is a major milestone, and it may take time, but don’t give up. Networking and asking for word-of-mouth recommendations is necessary, but there is much more you can do in the meantime. One of the most important things to do is to know your “ideal” client. What industry are they in? Do they work for a small or large enterprise? What types of changes do they want to make?
Create and practice your “elevator speech” that lets someone know in 30 seconds what you do and how you do it. And make it easy to do business with you. Always have with you a selection of your own marketing collateral, or at least a rate sheet with clear payment options so people will see that you take your work seriously and are ready to answer their questions.
Finally, set realistic goals with a timeline. You may need to start with an offer that is hard to resist, such as a flat-rate package of time with clear goals and a clear value proposition. After you acquire the first client (and presumably give them your absolute best effort), you’ve built some momentum toward gaining the next client, and so on, with each client, you add to your repertoire.
Marketing yourself online should begin before you land that first client, and should include your presence on a handful of social media sites (especially sites on which you have a loyal following). Content marketing through blogging is standard practice with executive coaches. If you haven’t the time to consistently publish relevant information to your coaching blog, you may need to invest in a writer who can do this for you. Consistency and commitment are the keys to building a strong online presence that will serve your coaching practice for years to come.
Executive coaching that gets demonstrable results benefits both the client organization and the coach.
Executive coaching programs strive to train executive coaches who deliver measurable value to their clients. At the same time, because there is no regulation in the executive coaching industry, sketchy executive coaching programs exist that hand out meaningless credentials and do little but waste people’s time and money.
Accredited executive coaching programs are the ones that companies should look for when evaluating potential coaches for their top leaders because it is the accredited programs that have the most to lose from ill-prepared or marginally trained coaches that come from the programs.
Becoming a successful executive coach is simple, but not easy, and companies that take the time to research potential coaches and to talk to them before signing a contract are likeliest to discover just the right coach for their needs. Great coaching relationships depend on honesty and transparency, right from the start.
If you want to know more about executive coaching, corporate culture, and the importance of coaching to outstanding leadership that gets results, I invite you to check out my books, which explore these topics and more in detail.
Glossary of Terms
Accreditation – a process of officially recognizing a person or training program as having necessary qualifications to perform a particular service
Core competencies – a combination of knowledge and technical capabilities that produces results within a given business context
Executive coaching – the defined, professional relationship between a trained coach and client, with goals that typically include enhancement of the client’s leadership performance
Generalist coach – a coach whose aptitudes and knowledge may be applied to a wide variety of different fields or industries
International Coach Federation (ICF) – an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to the professional coaching field, as well as development and accreditation of executive coach training programs
Specialist coach – a coach who focuses their practice on businesses within a particular industry or sector, such as finance, technology, or healthcare
Corporate culture is perhaps the most powerful way businesses can unite their people behind common goals and behaviors. It’s not an exaggeration to say that great culture can be a powerful competitive advantage.
Don’t think great culture is a competitive advantage? Watch what happens to companies where culture isn’t given attention.
While it can be easy to see how a rotting corporate culture can destroy a business, it’s not always as easy to see how a great corporate culture helps with long-term success. But help with success it does!
Building a strong corporate culture is one of the hardest things a CEO will ever do, and yet it’s essential. Culture is related to productivity, change management, handling growth, increasing profits, and hiring and maintaining the best team.
It’s amazing how much emphasis companies place on mapping out business strategies, often while letting the surrounding culture fend for itself. But fixing a broken corporate culture is much more than a cosmetic fix: it can be what saves a business and positions it for long-term success.
The Effect of Leadership Coaching
Leadership coaching at the highest levels of the company hierarchy can have a positive effect on corporate culture, as long as both client and coach identify corporate culture as a strong priority (which they should). Building self-awareness is often a key goal of leadership coaching relationships, and when a leader does this, it’s much harder to avoid seeing culture problems or to write them off as isolated problems.
Any leadership coaching specialist will tell you that leadership means nothing if people don’t respect it. And they simply won’t respect “leadership” from someone who is blind to systemic problems in corporate culture.
Culture from the Top Down and from the Bottom Up
As important as it is for top leaders to commit to strong corporate culture, it’s equally as important for the rank and file workforce to commit to strong corporate culture from their own point of view. But they won’t do this if they believe that leadership doesn’t care about them or value them as essential members of the team propelling the organization to success.
Culture must be addressed from the top, but it can’t be dictated.
It’s also important for top leaders to understand what “culture” means to the administrative assistant, the building manager, the drafter, and even the summer intern. Because what someone at the top thinks of as “good corporate culture” may be completely divorced from what “good corporate culture” means to the people actually operating the company day to day.
Communication, Transparency, and Honesty
Corporate culture consulting requires a uniquely tailored set of services, but it always depends on an environment of strong communication, transparency of motives, and plain honesty. A company can spend huge sums of money trying to improve corporate culture, but if the top brass doesn’t communicate what that means, and doesn’t listen to the concerns of non-leaders, it won’t work.
Worse still are cases where efforts toward better corporate culture hide fundamental dishonesty on the part of company leadership or fail completely to take into account the needs of the everyday employee. Putting a pool table in the breakroom won’t make much of an impact on a workforce that has repeatedly asked for flexible scheduling to accommodate family obligations. Ultimately, empty gestures end up alienating employees – often really good employees who are worth keeping around.
Any business will tell you that providing outstanding products and services is the key to long-term success. But how many of them forget that there needs to be an environment that is conducive to providing outstanding services to customers? Corporate culture consulting services can work wonders, as can leadership coaching, provided they are undertaken by company leadership that is genuinely committed to making positive changes, and not just slapping a quick paint job over serious structural issues.
My many years of experience as a leadership coach have taught me that great leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum or in a perfect, predictable world. It depends heavily on the people who are led, and how they view the organization and the pursuit of its goals. Don’t let culture fend for itself, because it won’t work over the long term. If you want to learn in more depth about corporate culture, leadership, and cultural transformation, I encourage you to learn more about my executive coaching programs and check out my books for more insights.